In his Essays of Elia and its sequel, Last Essays of Elia, Charles Lamb explores a broad range of topics and works with various non-fiction tropes that often edge into the terrain of fiction. We see him writing obituaries, dream journals, diatribes, and tributes. What unifies Lamb's essays is his lyrical, conversational writing style. Like many fellow Romantics, he often employs purple prose and shows off his sharp wit, but the essays themselves remain accessible and often fun. Elia is the persona Lamb uses when writing essays, so instead of referring to Lamb or "the narrator," these synopses will refer simply to "Elia."
Elia details his pet obsession, old china. The essay starts with—typical for Elia—a flight of fancy, as he gets lost in a scene of a tea ceremony depicted on a cup. The essay veers into a conversation with Cousin Bridget about whether the days when they were poorer were more fulfilling than those of their comparative wealth.
"Dream-Children; A Reverie"
Much of this essay reads as Elia's elegy to his grandmother, Field, the magnanimous, fearless woman who took care of a mansion where Elia spent much of his childhood. He recounts Field as well as his late brother John to his children, but when Elia begins to tell the children about their mother Alice, they fade away, and Elia wakes up from a dream. He never had any children by Alice, since Alice chose to marry another man.
"A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig"
A comical essay which includes many nuggets of fiction, "A Dissertation" is Elia's attempt to imagine the provenance of people eating roast pork, a dish that he loves. He talks about an imaginary ancient boy who burns down his family's shack but eats the pig that died in the fire and loves it. The essay veers into a discussion of Elia's love of sharing food with other people, before ending with a moral conundrum of how animals that are to be eaten should be slaughtered.
"The South-Sea House"
Elia describes the bank where he used to work, the South Sea House, which was the site of a famous financial speculation hoax. He recounts his various co-workers as well as the owners of the bank, but eventually reveals that his account may be as much of a hoax as the scam that the bank infamously ran.
Elia writes an obituary for his friend Elliston, a beloved stage actor whose on-stage and off-stage presences were indistinguishable from one another. Elliston is described as a passionate man whose only regrets are that he was pigeonholed late in his career for doing what he did best.
"Rejoicings Upon a New Year's Coming of Age"
This is a fanciful essay which is effectively a work of fiction imagining a New Year's Day party where all of the days of the year are personified and mingle with one another. April Fool's is the master of ceremonies and creates delightful chaos throughout the celebration.
"Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading"
In this essay, Elia talks about his compulsive reading habit, praising his favorites, Shakespeare and Milton, while confessing that he'll read just about anything with text that is put in front of him. He rails against newspapers and especially the practice of reading them out loud in public settings, as this violates that individualistic style of reading that Elia favors.
"Grace Before Meat"
Elia is typically skeptical of hypocrisy in organized religion, but this is really the essay where he outlines the substance of his critique by way of articulating his own religious and moral convictions. He believe that grace is usually uttered insincerely, and that only the poor really have dignity in saying it, as they are truly grateful for the opportunity to have food on their table. This extends to a broader condemnation of the rich.
"The Old and New Schoolmaster"
Elia talks about the limits of his education based on the old style of pedagogy, which was wholly rooted in learning English and literature pertinent to it. The new schoolmasters know a little bit about everything so that their pupils' curiosity can always be satisfied. The essay ends with a letter from a schoolmaster about how alienated he feels from his students after the passing of his wife.
"The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers"
In an essay that is somewhat uncomfortable to read because of its treatment of race, Elia praises young boys who are chimney sweepers. He praises the tea they drink and their jovial attitude, before describing dinners that his late friend used to throw for the boys every year where they were treated like nobility. As with many of Elia's essays, this one elevates the nobility of the lower classes.